Some schools in Canada avoid discussing Israel-Hamas war, leaving students on their own

With many family members living in Israel, the current Israel-Hamas war weighs heavily on the mind of Toronto teen Lior Markus. “I think about it — literally — constantly,” the Grade 11 student said.

Over the past two weeks, he expected some mention of the situation at school — an acknowledgement during morning announcements, maybe, or one of his teachers touching on the subject during law class or sociology.

The 16-year-old said he’s shocked that talk of the ongoing violence has pretty much been only among students themselves: at a Jewish heritage club meeting he attended and in casual chats with Jewish and non-Jewish classmates.

Markus said his school has a significant population of both Jewish and of Muslim students, but officials seem like “we’re just going on and acting like nothing has happened at all.”

A teenage boy in a blue sweatshirt sits up straight and smiles slightly from a chair set outdoors in the shade of trees and near a short stone wall.
Lior Markus, 16, says he worries that some of his peers who have questions about the conflict will simply fill in their knowledge gaps with what’s found on social media, which can be rife with misinformation. (Hugo Levesque/CBC)

The current conflict began on Oct. 7, when Hamas militants launched an attack on Israel, leaving 1,400 people dead and taking about 200 hostages, and Israel responded with continuous airstrikes on Gaza, so far killing more than 4,000 and leaving a million people homeless, according to authorities. 

Across Canada, school boards, divisions and districts have taken different approaches to addressing the ongoing Israel-Hamas war — from not mentioning it at all to establishing special support groups for students connected to the region.

But some teens say it’s imperative to broach the conflict at school, despite being fully aware these will be tough conversations to have.

Social media filled with misinformation

At a different Toronto school, Grade 12 student Yousif Ahmed has had a similar experience, saying that he and fellow students are talking about events in Israel and Gaza, but there haven’t been formal discussions with teachers.

The 16-year-old, who immigrated to Toronto from Sudan about six years ago, said he’s experienced hateful, Islamophobic comments at school before, so he’s felt anxious about expressing himself or freely discussing his beliefs. More recently, he’s limited chats about the current conflict to a close circle of peers, after a recent conversation left one friend giving him the cold shoulder.

A teenage boy in a beige hooded sweatshirt stands outdoors on an autumn day, next to a fenced-in schoolyard with colourful leaves scattered on the ground behind him.
Yousif Ahmed, 16, says he’d like to see dedicated class time or special meetings that allow for careful discussion of the conflict. ‘A lot of people are ignorant and uneducated on the topic, and they’re picking sides without knowing what’s actually going on.’ (Hugo Levesque/CBC)

Ahmed said while he knows teachers and guidance counsellors have been available to students who’ve approached them for support over the last two weeks, like Markus, he wants to see more support — such as special meetings or dedicated in-class time to discuss the situation under careful guidance.

“A lot of people are ignorant and uneducated on the topic, and they’re picking sides without knowing what’s actually going on,” Ahmed said.

Exploring conflict and violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories is undoubtedly a divisive, challenging and — perhaps for some — brand new subject, Markus said, but the teen thinks avoiding it leaves students worse off.

Many of his peers have questions, he said, and some will simply fill in their knowledge gaps with what’s found on social media, which can be rife with misinformation. “You’ll go on Instagram or TikTok, and you’ll see different people that have absolutely no [credentials] talking about this,” he said.

Support groups for students, families

In the two weeks since war broke out between Israel and Hamas, Canadian school authorities have varied in their approach to addressing it. Some have made no mention of the situation at all to the wider school community.

But a host of boards — including the Toronto District School Board, the Louis Riel School Division in Winnipeg and the English Montreal School Board, for instance — have opted for such measures as sharing resources with families and educators on how to talk to children and teens about tragic events; emphasizing existing mental health support available through their schools; and reiterating protocols for reporting safety or security incidents.

A man holding glasses and sitting in front of a tablet computer speaks to a woman and teen girl sitting across a desk from him.
In the two weeks since the Israel-Hamas war began, some Canadian school boards have sent out messages to families, including resources for parents and educators advising them on how to talk to children and teens about conflict and war. (Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

A few have taken the further step of mounting support groups for students. At the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, Muslim and Jewish students in grades 7 through 12 are meeting separately for conversations co-ordinated in part by district staff with a shared heritage.

Meanwhile, the York Region District School Board, north of Toronto, has arranged for counselling meetings that support Jewish and Israeli students and their families, and separate sessions for Muslim and Palestinian students and their families. Participants’ identities will be protected during the virtual sessions, which are being led by trained clinicians.

The York school board initiative came together in part due to concerns that families expressed with board officials and suggestions from internal groups, such as the mental health team, said Lois Agard, a co-ordinating superintendent whose portfolio includes equity, and inclusive school and community services.

“We have heard feedback, and that feedback directs what our actions are,” she said. “Based on the feedback that we get from these sessions, we’ll determine what our next steps are. Our focus is how do we continue to support all of our students and ensure that the school continues to be a safe place.”

A women in a bright pink blazer sits at a desk in front of a computer, with brightly coloured posters and signs on the wall behind her.
Lois Agard, a co-ordinating superintendent at the York Region District School Board, says separate online counselling sessions will be held for Jewish and Israeli students and their families, and for Muslim and Palestinian students and their families. (Hugo Levesque/CBC)

Over the past two weeks, parents of Muslim and Jewish students alike have shared concerns about student safety and protecting their kids from either Islamophobic or antisemitic incidents at school.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau referred to the sentiment as well during a speech in Brampton, Ont., on Friday.

“Right now, Canadians of Muslim, Arab and particularly Palestinian origin are extremely worried, as are Canadians of the Jewish faith, Canadians with ties to Israel,” he said. “Everyone is scared of what this means right now in terms of whether you can send your kids to school safely or whether you’re going to be harassed walking in the streets.”

Agard reiterated the importance of students and families connecting with teachers and school administrators for support and to raise concerns if anything troubling occurs. At the York school board, there’s also the option of anonymous reporting through the board’s online form, Report It, which triggers investigations, she said.

Ultimately, what high school senior Ahmed wants is for adults to understand that the Israel-Hamas war isn’t a concern only for grown-ups.

“It’s not only adults that are having to deal with the situation…. It’s also affecting us in school,” he said. “We want [adults] to understand that it is also having a heavy mental effect on us, as students.”

WATCH | Some school boards help students deal with Israel-Hamas war:

School boards now offering support to students over Israel-Hamas war

Featured VideoSome Canadian school boards are now taking steps to support and provide mental health services to Jewish and Muslim students who are emotionally struggling with the Israel-Hamas war. Fear of backlash has led some worried parents to keep their children at home.

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